Just like I did last year, I'm going to make a grandiose, self-congratulatory post about my favorite musical things of the year. Because I've slacked off the writing recently, let's just get started right away—
My top albums of the year (no ordering, just stuff that I liked)
(if you want cover art, just google the titles)
The Durutti Column — Sunlight To Blue...Blue To Blackness (Kookydiscs)
Well, I didn't expect another release from the skinny Manchester noodler until at least next year, but he bucked the convention yet again and released an album of all new material just under eight months after Idiot Savants (last year's album of the year pick). This album, in stark contrast to Idiot Savants, was a sparse, isolated affair which found most of the tracks as simply solo Vini Reilly performances. Very little overdubbing as well, so most of it is just solo guitar. Outstanding tracks like 'Messages' (nice harmonica!) and 'So Many Crumbs and Monkeys' were simply supports in the album's undeniably warm and rock solid foundation. While not the all out exuberant masterpiece that Idiot Savants was, it was quite an unexpected surprise nonetheless.
The Sea and Cake — Car Alarm (Thrill Jockey)
And another of my favorites releases two albums in just under a year! When the release date was announced, I was shocked because it took these guys so long between their previous two albums. I just figured it'd be another three or four years before I'd hear from them under this moniker again. The album does have the feel of renewed energy. Love it as much as I did (and do), Everybody was kind of downtrodden. This album still has that trademark breezy melancholy that the band is known for, but there's a little more pep in the presentation of the tunes this time around. The album's highlight is undoubtedly the band's return to danciness, 'Weekend.' Although there's not a bad song in the bunch. It's just another one in the long line of consistency that is the band's catalogue.
The Occasional Keepers — True North (LTM Recordings)
Bob Wratten made another appearance on record this year as well. Although it wasn't until track four (of a ten track album!) that he finally decided to show up, he stole the show when he did (with 'Leave the Secret There Forever'). The second album by this side project group does tend to branch out a little from the first album's soothing constant calm (especially with Cesar's excellent track 'Town of 85 Lights') and I'd actually say it's my favorite of the two so far (will there be another one?). Nothing revelatory, but fantastic well-rounded stuff.
The Cure — 4:13 (Geffen)
I expected it to be terrible, to be completely honest. And when I first heard it, I thought it was incredible. But since time has passed and I've grown more familiar with it and gotten over the initial shock of it being a genuinely good Cure album that stands up with the band's prime years, I've found that it's just that: a good album by a band that used to churn them out every year or two. Not saying it's better than anything from their prime years, but it certainly could've come from that time period. But at the same time, it's not regressive, rehashing old ideas and themes; not at all. And I think that's what quite striking about the whole thing: the freshness of the material. Excellent fluffy singles ('The Only One' and 'The Perfect Boy') sat right alongside classic Cure downers ('The Reasons Why' and 'The Hungry Ghost') and things sounded all the better for it. Ultimately, a relieving album for Cure fans.
Al Green — Lay it Down (Blue Note)
Classic Al Green, circa 2008. And you know what? I turned all cynical when I read Questlove's pre-release comments about how he wanted to make an old Al Green record. I thought, come on dude, it's not the 70's anymore, let him make the album he wants to make. And then I realized, his most recent resurgence on Blue Note had been less than completely satisfying. So when I heard that classic Hi Records drum sound recreated to a tee, I just let the album burn. And not only does it feel completely like one of Al's classic releases, it feels like his best work since the Belle Album, roughly thirty years ago. Stellar performances all around and not a bad song in the bunch. Just great music.
Death Cab For Cutie — Narrow Stairs (Atlantic)
Darker and bleaker than anything else the band has ever done, even Plans and its death-obsessed outlook was no match for the downright negative 'giving up' attitude that this album brought to the table. Where Plans used death as a theme of looking up and out, this album just wallows in the negative side of everything. It feels, at times, like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Rough stuff, but what a batch of super songs. Riffy, catchy and (strangely enough) fun to sing along with, this will probably go down as the band's weirdest album. It's weird to think that they got even more popular this year as well, even on the back of such a dark record. More power to 'em, because this bettered the snoozefest that was Plans within the first two tracks. Well done.
The Breeders — Mountain Battles (4AD)
Another seriously dark album. As this is the Breeders, so it's an inherently shambling and lo-fi affair and that just ups the darkness into a hazy, druggy feeling. Kim Deal sounds like she's on the verge of tears for a good portion of the album and the second half is surprisingly quiet (especially for a Breeders album!). Definitely an album that requires a front to back listen every time, it's a fascinating return form for one of the great cult bands of recent years.
Erykah Badu — New AmERYKAH: Part one (4th World War) (Motown)
A very political and chaotic album, it was initially a relief after the Worldwide Underground debacle a few years ago. It was great to hear Erykah sounding like she actually cared again. More of a song cycle than an album, it definitely felt like the smaller piece of something bigger (which makes sense because it was supposed to be one of three new albums that she was to release this year; the other two never materialized). But overall, with great songs like 'Soldier', 'The Cell' and 'Telephone', it's an album that is eye-popping on initial listens, but rewards repeated astute run-throughs.
Ahamad Jamal — It's Magic (Dreyfuss Jazz)
When he released In Search of Momentum five years ago, it felt like Ahmad Jamal was experiencing a resurgence in his creativity as a composer. This was confirmed a couple years later with After Fajr and the trend continues on this album. There are some stellar new compositions (highlighted by the title track) and his current reassessment of one of his best tunes ever ('Swahililand') continues with a a brief, but no less revelatory, reading. Sixty years into his career and he is once again entering a creative renaissance. That's what legends do, I guess.
And now, for my biggest disappointments…
Congrats, Common! You managed to make this category two years in a row! Good for you! Only a serious embarrassment of an album could've helped you get here again, and that's exactly what that UMC bullshit was! You've officially become a shadow of your former self! That's great!
This album sucked, plain and simple. For all his cool little guitar and sound experiments in Death Cab, you'd think he would've pulled out a neo-shoegaze sound for his solo album, but no, all we got was Plans-lite. And Plans was lite to begin with, so this album ended up as deliriously harmless. Yuck.
The albums that I wanted to check out, but never did, based on whatever variables…
Robert Forster — The Evangelist
I have absolutely no excuse for not having heard this album. I hesitate to call myself a Go-Betweens fan because of this clear and present display of non-fandom.
All those g'damn Durutti Column vault releases and reissues
Damn you and your undying coolness, LTM Recordings! I can't afford those pricey imports.
I hesitate to call this the ‘rediscoveries’ section because I never discovered these records until this year, but a lot of people call it that. Anyway, here’s a bunch of older things that I just caught up to in 2008…
Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim
I know there's tons of musicians out there like this: ridiculously large back catalogues and unbelievable consistency. That's why I hesitated so long. I've picked up four or five albums so far and they are all fantastic. The sort of thing that sounds good no matter what. Heartfelt and poignant, with a deep emotional resonance all the time, every time. Very Bill Evans, in that respect. My journey has just begun, but I can't wait for the amazing discoveries that are surely forthcoming.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Early stuff, mind you. I picked up Organisation in the dollar bin one Sunday afternoon and was blown away. They were like a spiritual blend of New Order and the Chameleons. Why didn't anyone ever tell me!? I quickly picked up the rest of their stuff up to and including Junk Culture and they have quickly become one of my favorite early 80's groups. All of the early stuff is great, but Dazzle Ships is a monument in my ears.
Recently I found out that Blue Note is deleting a good chunk of its currently in-print back catalogue. The three disc Herbie Nichols set is on the chopping block to be out of print by early next year, so I picked it up and was absolutely astounded by the entire set. It's like post-bop at the height of be-bop. Amazing stuff.
Just recently caught up to this David Sylvian project. It's a lot like what you would expect the next David Sylvian album after Dead Bees On A Cake to sound like. Except it came out after Blemish. Awesome blend of electronics and acoustic stand up bass. Really great stuff.
James Oakes and the Bellows
See the archives for my post about them...
Wire Train — ...in a chamber
Wonderful new wave from the 415 Records scene of early 80's San Francisco. Strummy and melodic but with that dreamy early 80's guitar sound. Every last song on this album is great, but 'Chamber of Hellos' is a bonafide lost classic.
And, for the mixed media category…
Best film of the year: The Dark Knight
I hated Batman Begins (or, as I subtitled it: Batman Bores) and my expectations were even worse for this movie. But, no, I'm a big budget blockbuster whore, apparently, because I thought it kicked ass. Visually amazing, thematically intense and technically flawless, they really knocked it out of the park with this one.
Best book I read this year: View From A Hill by Mark Burgess
How could it not be? He makes you feel like you were there too. Just fantastic. See my post about it in the archives.
Good stuff all around I say. Didn't get that new Maxwell record, although he did tour, so maybe it'll be out soon...
Oh yeah, top fives will begin again after the new year...